There are many things I love about blogging, and one of them is the comments and friendly suggestions people leave. I was sharing some ideas I have about a guide to writing about family history and someone mentioned a very important point which to be honest I had not properly considered. When I led a family history writing group, it was something which was mentioned in a sideways sort of a way but I never got to the stage of developing it.
What my perceptive commentator said – and I’m very grateful to him, was that there is often more than one story connected to an incident which happened, or a relationship between family members. It’s obvious really, but family stories are slanted by the person who remembers them. All sorts of people are supposed to have been the originator of the phrase somewhere along the lines of;”history is written by the victors” – and I guess the sense of it can be applied to family history too.
Inspired by this I want to write a story from my own family, but I don’t really know the truth of it, no-one does now, and anyway is there such a thing as truth? Different people have different perspectives, but which is the tight one? This was explored in a TV drama series, Boomtown, which I very much enjoyed and admired and was surprised it was chopped halfway through series 2. Each episode told a story through the different points of view of the characters, so the audience saw the same scene repeated but from a different standpoint with the back story of the characters whose point of view we were watching.
The story I’m thinking of writing is about my grandfather. I have some quite clear memories of him although he died when I was just eleven. He was seventy-five when he died. He was very strict and severe, and although I was shy and nervous with him, I was never fearful. He had four children, my uncle, then my two aunts, then my mum, the baby. I remember him telling me how to behave in certain situations – which seems strange now, for example if you’re invited into a room leave the door as you found it – if open leave it open, if closed, then shut it behind you. He also said it was important when brushing shoes to brush and polish the underneath part between the sole and the heel… I’m sure there were other things along the same lines. He was very fond of my cousins and me and my sister, I now realise, although my cousin was clearly his favourite, just as her mum had been. We felt no resentment, it was just the way it was, but he took her on visits and took her and her brother to a fancy hotel for ice-cream – I remember going once, but only once.
He had somewhat of an exciting life; he spent time in Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon and in the Cape Verde Islands. He attended London Polytechnic so he was a very intelligent and clever man and a gifted linguist. However, he ended up as a travelling salesman, a hard, hard life for an elderly man, carrying his heavy suitcase around for ten to twelve hours a day. He didn’t earn much and always in debt; he was very generous, but often borrowed money or spent the housekeeping to be so. He was a complicated and complex man, and I can’t imagine what the relationship was with my grandma – at the time, they were just my grandparents, and as a child I didn’t think anything about it. They were engaged for seven years and married in 1916, halfway through WW1 in which he served – he also joined up in WW2, he was extremely patriotic. I remember him standing up for the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day, so I daresay I did too.
How did his children see him? I have no idea how my uncle viewed him, just as dad I guess, and being of a Victorian generation, I guess grandpa was quite an old=fashioned father. My uncle went to a prestigious grammar school even though the family was not well off, and then joined the RAF before the war was even thought of. My mum and her older sister Aunty B who were so alike they were often mistaken for twins, may have been a little in awe of him, but certainly were not scared of him. He would become very cross with them giggling – they were terrible gigglers, and would tell them off at mealtimes. However he also took them out in the old jalopy he had at one point, squashed together on the front seat and no seat belts then. They were both bright girls and got scholarships to the grammar schools in Cambridge. I followed Aunty B to the same one, my mum went to what was then the best school in Cambridge.
Mum’s eldest sister had a very different attitude to him, I think she actually hated him. She would say things about him which her sisters didn’t think were true – that he beat them with a copper stick for example, my mum and other aunty said this absolutely did not happen… but who now knows? She resented the fact she only had one first name, Aunty B had three names, mum had two, and my uncle had two. Aunty A didn’t go to a grammar school, but her sisters only did because they got scholarships. She left school at fourteen and worked for a while at the village school she’d attended, and then went to work elsewhere before joining up in the army at the age of 19, when war was declared. As the eldest daughter maybe Aunty A knew things the youngest two didn’t, but as she left home early, they lived with their parents for much longer, mum was twenty-two when she married, Aunty B was twenty-five, in a way they knew their parents better.
There’s much more to their stories than this brief outline – but the point I’m making is that how would I write about grandpa? I remember him differently from my cousin. The stories my two aunties and my mum told me show three different fathers, what my dad and my uncle, Aunty B’s husband, told me about their father-in-law, shows another version of grandpa. The research I’ve done about his travels and his war record add another dimension.
Writing about the past is not straightforward, and this aspect I’ve fleetingly explored above needs to be included in any book I write about it!!
Here is a link to the blog of the person who set me off on this new thought about writing about the past!